#Climate communications: Dr. Hans Rosling on the problem of exaggerated claims, false urgency, leading to bad decisions on climate change policy

#Climate communications: Dr. Hans Rosling on the problem of exaggerated claims, false urgency, leading to bad decisions on climate change policy

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The late Dr. Hans Rosling, a professor of public and global health, in Sweden, made these observations about climate communications messaging in his book Factfulness.

When we are told that something is urgent, that we must make decisions urgently, we are listening to the voice of a sales person. The goal is to get us to decide without thinking. But urgency can lead us down paths of bad decision making. Rosling illustrates with his making an urgent recommendation to shut down roads in the belief he was dealing with a contagious disease epidemic; in fact, it was a widespread food poisoning problem. But because of his urgent decision, a couple of dozen people drowned (see his book for details).

I don’t like fear. Fear of war plus the panic of urgency made me see a Russian pilot and blood on the floor. Fear of pandemic plus the panic of urgency made me close the road and cause the drownings of all those mothers, children, and fishermen. Fear plus urgency make for stupid, drastic decisions with unpredictable side effects. Climate change is too important for that. It needs systematic analysis, thought-through decisions, incremental actions, and careful evaluation.

Rosling, Hans. Factfulness (pp. 229-230). Flatiron Books. Kindle Edition.

And I don’t like exaggeration. Exaggeration undermines the credibility of well-founded data: in this case, data showing that climate change is real, that it is largely caused by greenhouse gases from human activities such as burning fossil fuels, and that taking swift and broad action now would be cheaper than waiting until costly and unacceptable climate change happened. Exaggeration, once discovered, makes people tune out altogether.

Rosling, Hans. Factfulness (p. 230). Flatiron Books. Kindle Edition.

Emphasis added, above. This is the same point I am making in regards to faulty climate communications.

Still, the volume on climate change keeps getting turned up. Many activists, convinced it is the only important global issue, have made it a practice to blame everything on the climate, to make it the single cause of all other global problems.

They grab at the immediate shocking concerns of the day—the war in Syria, ISIS, Ebola, HIV, shark attacks, almost anything you can imagine—to increase the feeling of urgency about the long-term problem. Sometimes the claims are based on strong scientific evidence, but in many cases they are far-fetched, unproven hypotheses. I understand the frustrations of those struggling to make future risks feel concrete in the present. But I cannot agree with their methods.

Most concerning is the attempt to attract people to the cause by inventing the term “climate refugees.” My best understanding is that the link between climate change and migration is very, very weak. The concept of climate refugees is mostly a deliberate exaggeration, designed to turn fear of refugees into fear of climate change, and so build a much wider base of public support for lowering CO2 emissions.

Rosling, Hans. Factfulness (pp. 232-233). Flatiron Books. Kindle Edition.

In the bold section, above, he is identifying the use of the propaganda method “transference” to twist a fear of immigrants into a fear of climate change.

Climate change is way too important a global risk to be ignored or denied, and the vast majority of the world knows that. But it is also way too important to be left to sketchy worst-case scenarios and doomsday prophets.

Rosling, Hans. Factfulness (p. 232). Flatiron Books. Kindle Edition.

Much climate communications is using the technique of fear to encourage a rapid, emotional response, devoid of Kahneman’s system 2 analytical thinking style.

Because of the Never Cry Wolf problem:

Crying wolf too many times puts at risk the credibility and reputation of serious climate scientists and the entire movement. With a problem as big as climate change, we cannot let that happen. Exaggerating the role of climate change in wars and conflicts, or poverty, or migration, means that the other major causes of these global problems are ignored, hampering our ability to take action against them. We cannot get into a situation where no one listens anymore. Without trust, we are lost. And hotheaded claims often entrap the very activists who are using them. The activists defend them as a smart strategy to get people engaged, and then forget that they are exaggerating and become stressed and unable to focus on realistic solutions. People who are serious about climate change must keep two thoughts in their heads at once: they must continue to care about the problem but not become victims of their own frustrated, alarmist messages.

Rosling, Hans. Factfulness (pp. 233-234). Flatiron Books. Kindle Edition.

The present approach to climate communications is tuning people out – and leading to distortions of world views. As noted on this blog, a majority of those age 18-35 in the U.S. believe humanity may collapse within 10 years, even though there is zero evidence for such claims.

Urgency is one of the worst distorters of our worldview. I know I probably said that about all the other dramatic instincts too, but I think maybe this one really is special. Or perhaps they all come together in this one. The over dramatic worldview in people’s heads creates a constant sense of crisis and stress. The urgent “now or never” feelings it creates lead to stress or apathy: “We must do something drastic. Let’s not analyze. Let’s do something.” Or, “It’s all hopeless. There’s nothing we can do. Time to give up.” Either way, we stop thinking, give in to our instincts, and make bad decisions.

Rosling, Hans. Factfulness (pp. 236-237). Flatiron Books. Kindle Edition.

Factfulness is one of the more important books I have read. Bill Gates said that too about Factfulness.

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